Cub Recommends… From the Life of the Marionettes

Still from From the Life of the Marionettes. Courtesy of Janus Films.

This piece contains references to fictionalised sexual violence.

The refrain ‘All paths are barred’ characterises the overwhelming nihilism of Ingmar Bergman’s 1980 film From the Life of the Marionettes. Made four years after Bergman’s self-imposed tax exile from Sweden in 1976 it inherits a cynicism and distrust of authority from this tumultuous time. Bergman, accused of tax evasion, had fled Sweden to live in Munich, not before suffering a nervous break-down. This alienation from his homeland finds metaphoric expression in Marionettes’ protagonist Peter Egerman (Robert Atzorn) who, becoming completely alienated from his emotional life, murders and rapes a sex worker. The film then works backwards to explain how Peter, a successful bourgeois businessman could commit such a sordid and evil crime.

I would recommend this film as one Bergman’s undervalued major works that would be all too easy to pass over. He channels a blackness of tone completely absent from his most popular works such Persona, The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries.  While those films express a basic faith in the world—in love, in God, in the soul—the world of Marionettes embraces complete nihilism. Peter’s marriage to Katarina (Christine Buchegger) is an unpleasant one, yet they share a profound bond with one another. Katarina certainly loves Peter, despite her infidelity, capriciousness and attempts to humiliate him. Peter is too alienated from himself to reciprocate this love. He knows something is wrong so visits his long-time acquaintance and psychiatrist, Professor Morgenjensen. The Doctor is a charlatan who recommends Peter take walks and drink cognac to cure his ennui, with his true aim to consummate an affair with Peter’s wife. It’s in this sense that ‘All Paths are barred’, a line repeated by Peter. He lives in a faithless, self-obsessed world where psychiatry and love are the only forms of redemption. Failed by these forces Peter’s anguish expresses itself in an act of complete violence.

What I like about this film is the artistry of Bergman in creating such a cynical view of life. The film unfolds in a series of interiors, a decision Bergman himself would later regret, but which I feel gives the film a sense of solipsism crucial for its effectiveness. He creates characters who are selfish, vain and brutal with the exception of Ka (Rita Russek), the sex worker Peter murders. Contrasting her simple humanity with the self-absorption of Peter’s bourgeois world creates a tragic pathos in her death. In the West Germany of 1980 Bergman finds a society rotten to its core and presents it as such with Peter emblem of its latent capacity for violence.

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